REVIEW: Ernie Ball Music Man Big Al Bass

The Ernie Ball Music Man Albert Lee model guitar is one of the company’s most unusual instruments – and that’s saying something for the company that also gave us the wacky yet awesome Bongo bass. While the Lee model takes certain obvious design cues from the Stratocaster, it’s also unmistakably EBMM. For starters there’s the split 2/4 headstock, the five-bolt neck joint, and the matte feel of the back of the neck (a gunstock oil and hand-rubbed special wax blend) which ends abruptly at the back of the headstock. Then there’s there’s the angular body shape, which is unlike anything else out there. (Personally I’ve often fantasized about this shape being used for a Floyd Rose-loaded, aggressive metal machine, maybe with seven strings). Lee may be a country player, and a freaking amazing one at that, but that doesn’t mean his signature guitar design isn’t cool enough for other styles too.

And that leads us to the Big Al bass. Albert Lee isn’t a bass player, but his angular, pointy signature guitar design makes a cracking bass. Interestingly, the bass version started life as a gift to EBMM’s Sterling Ball. The Big Al’s body is made of African mahogany, finished in a high-gloss polyester. (The pickguard is available in black or white as standard, but options include shell, white pearloid, vintage white, pearloid or black pearloid). The bridge is a Music Man chrome-plated, hardened steel bridge plate with stainless steel saddles. The scale length is 34″.

[geo-out country=”Australia” note=””]CLICK HERE to buy the Ernie Ball Music Man Big Al Bass from Musician’s Friend.[/geo-out]

The neck is made of select maple with the aforementioned special oil/wax blend. The fretboard radius is a moderately curvy 11″ (not as flat as a lot of modern instruments but not as rounded as vintage ones), while the frets are wide with a high profile. Fretboard wood options include maple or rosewood fretboards on the fretted model, or Pau Ferro with or without inlaid fret lines if you go for the fretless model.

The neck is attached with that famous five-bolt system, and the neck pocket seems perfectly tight, while a sculpted joint ensures good upper-fret access.

Electronics options include either a single-humbucker model or a three single coil version (which is the model on review here). The singles feature Neodymium magnets, while the humbucker is loaded with ceramics. Electronics on the three-pickup model consist of three 2-way pushbutton pickup selectors, a 2-way pushbutton active/passive selector, a 500kohm volume and 250kohm tone pot for the passive preamp, and 25kohm volume (ganged on the same pot as the passive circuit), treble, high-mid, low-mid and bass controls for the active preamp. Oh and you’ve gotta dig that pickup layout, with the slanted bridge pickup. Familiar on guitars, but I can’t think of any bass models that have used this particular layout.

The pickup switching appears is pretty complex, and although it’s entirely possible to just press them in different combinations and remember which ones sound best for what you’re going for tonally, it helps to understand what’s going on. Most settings make a lot of sense: press a button down to engage that pickup, and off you go. The one exception is when all three buttons are in the ‘up’ position. This setting engages only the bridge and middle pickups wired in series – effectively a humbucker.

So, time to plug in! First up, the passive tone is pleasantly warm and punchy, and the Big Al absolutely loves being played with a pick in this mode. I really dig the straight-foward vibe of being able to get within the general ballpark with the pickup selector buttons, then fine-tune the high end with the passive tone control. This is especially effective with old-school valve-driven bass tones. It flat out rules for classic rock, and you’ll probably play John Paul Jones riffs for hours before even thinking of flipping over to the active circuit.

Once you do kick in the active circuit though, the Big Al changes character completely. Although the basic attack and tone characteristics are still there, you’re given much more control over their overall presentation. Cranking up the bass and treble makes this vintage-vibed instrument suddenly become incredibly modern. Alternatively, keeping the treble and bass flat as you tweak the midrange is a great way of setting up a fusion solo tone that sits nicely with the passive mode. In that sense, you can get away with using the active/passive switch almost like a channel select switch on your amp. Cover band players in particular will love the switch, but then again so will anyone who really likes to have a few finely sculpted tones at their fingertips in the studio or on stage. And it’s great that you have the option of the series bridge/middle mode too for humbucking sounds.

What makes the Big Al so successful is that it doesn’t try to be anything else. It’s not trying to be a Jazz Bass or a P Bass or this or that. It doesn’t even try to be any other Ernie Ball Music Man bass. It is what it is, and what it is is awesome. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Big Al was more readily adopted than its quirky six-string cousin.

LINK: Ernie

[geo-in country=”Australia” note=””]This is an extended version of a review originally written for Mixdown magazine.[/geo-in]